I remember Thanksgiving 1997. It was a particularly hard time for me, because I was on chemotherapy for my breast cancer recurrence. Transplanted from our home to Houston for nine months while I underwent treatment, my husband, toddler son, and I had no friends in Houston; our only support was each other. Just before Thanksgiving, my white blood count went down to 50—dangerously low. My doctors prescribed daily outpatient shots to boost my white blood cells, but my health insurance company required that I take the shots in the hospital. I remember battling it out with the insurer but the company wouldn’t budge. So I grudgingly drove to the cancer center each day and spent my Thanksgiving weekend there.
I spent a good deal of time at the cancer center and felt pretty comfortable there. The Friday after Thanksgiving, however, I was feeling sorry for myself. I was afraid to go out with such a dangerously low blood count, and I was upset that I had to spend the holiday weekend getting medical treatment. As I was waiting for my injection, I saw a young couple with the “deer-in-the-headlights” look that distinguishes the newly-diagnosed. Clearly scared, uncertain, and overwhelmed, they looked like they could use a friendly face. I went to talk with them.
The husband had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They were there for a second opinion but thought they might stay for treatment. We traded stories, fears, and hopes and then I passed along some advice. “I decided early on that I would embrace whatever treatment my doctors recommended, no matter what it was,” I told them. “Every chemotherapy infusion, every radiation treatment, any surgery they recommended, I vowed to myself that I would embrace whatever they said was best for me.” It wasn’t earth-shattering advice but it was sincere and what I had to offer, and the couple seemed very grateful to receive it. It felt good to be able to help other people and the effort required was so small. It took my mind off my own problems and helped me focus on ways to turn my own challenges into change for others.
Six months later, I had completed treatment and also learned that I carried a BRCA2 mutation. To avoid hearing another cancer diagnosis, I chose to have a prophylactic oophorectomy and give up my dream of having a second child. I didn’t know a single soul who had had the surgery, and I was terrified of the early menopause oophorectomy causes and its possible implications. My surgery was early in the morning and so I spent the night before in the hospital. My son had a cold and because we had no babysitter or family to watch him, my husband had to stay with him and couldn’t visit me either. It was one of my darkest moments. I was alone, truly alone.
I am not a religious person but the hospital had a chapel and suddenly, I felt the need to be there. I sat in the quiet, sacred space and meditated on the stained glass. I tried to reach a calm mental state and embrace this new part of my journey, but I couldn’t quite achieve peace. I left the chapel to walk back through the almost-empty halls to my hospital room. Walking towards me was a couple who seemed familiar but I couldn’t quite place them. They stopped me. The woman said, “I don’t know if you remember us, but we remember you from the first day we were here. We were terrified with my husband’s diagnosis. You were so reassuring and gave us the best advice we have received: that we should embrace whatever treatment was recommended. And that is what we did. My husband is doing great so far. I never thought we would see you again, and here you are. I just wanted you to know how much you eased our minds at one of our most difficult moments.” We hugged and I then headed back to my room. Being confronted with my own sage advice made it easier for me to find solace and tranquility in my surgical decision. At a time when I most needed reassurance, I allowed myself to accept my own comforting words coming from others and embrace my impending surgery.
I was talking with a friend recently about how nervous I am about my annual checkups that are always scheduled around the holidays. Going back to Houston, being alone at the hospital around the holidays, and any new assortment of aches and pains dial my anxiety up a notch and bring me back 15 years to when I was in active treatment. How do I deal with cancer on a daily basis, as a career, without personalizing it and without being paralyzed by it? Initially it was hard. I was obsessed with cancer and what felt like my body’s betrayal, and the constant fear that my cancer would come back. I failed to realize the things related to my cancer experience for which I am now truly thankful. It’s easy for us to avoid things that scare us, but if we run away, we lose an opportunity to connect with people emotionally. I discovered a funny thing on my cancer journey. If I could use my energy to help other people, it lessened my own fear, sadness, and pain. And maybe that good deed will someday be returned to me at an unexpected but needed moment.
As we approach another Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful I chose a path that led me to a career with FORCE and the opportunity to help others on a daily basis. To all of you and your loved ones, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving!